Knoxville...2003 in Review!

Saturday, November 15, 2003
by Bill W
The banquet is Saturday, so I thought it might be time to hand out my semi-annual awards for this year’s season at Knoxville.  It is always hard to bring a year to a close and face the cold winter, but this year saw exceptional performances and racing action.  A huge factor in this is the exceptional job turned in by the Dunkin family.  They treat the track with tender-loving care, and unlike some tracks are working all week to get the track in shape for Saturday night.  Working with the push trucks who come in very early on Saturday, I can think of at least three rainouts in the last two years that were averted by their efforts.  This does not go unnoticed.
On to the awards on the track.  Knoxville has theirs, I have mine.  Sorry no envelopes with anything in them from me.  I am limiting my awards to Knoxville, as I was fortunate enough to see some great racing throughout the Midwest and south this year, headlined by the Mopar Million, my gem for the year.
Top Five Features (plus some)
1.  8/2 – What looked like a laugher for Jason Meyers turned into the win of the year for Terry McCarl in the Pella Classic.  Meyers had built a straightaway lead, when with two laps to go a caution appeared.  Without the benefit of lapped traffic between him and his pursuers, Meyers had Tim Shaffer and McCarl on his tail.  McCarl used bonsai moves on both Shaffer and Meyers in the final two laps to bring the crowd to its feet, and $15,000 to the bank.
2.  5/31 – Two outstanding features in one night.  42 410s and 40 midgets crowded the pits.  Lance Dewease was in from Pennsylvania to see car owner, Al Hamilton, into the National Sprintcar Hall of Fame.  He started 11th and worked his way to the front.  The story was again McCarl who spun in the initial circuits and had to restart 24th.  In 19 laps he surged back to record third, and refueled the debate between the Midwest vs. PA.  The most entertaining feature of the night was yet to come.  In midget action, Mike Hess, who won in 2002, led the first nine laps before Aaron Fiscus took over.  Don Droud Jr. began his assault from the ninth row, and took command using the cushion on lap 20 of 25.  Fiscus would get back around for the lead a lap later when Droud slowed with mechanical problems.  Chad DeSelle had started 13th and was sitting third in a final restart with two to go.  As the white flag dropped he rode the rim around Hess and Fiscus to take the $4000 prize.
3.  7/12 – Billy Alley surges to grab both wins on 360 double feature night.  After passing the point leader, Jesse Giannetto, late in the race to capture the front end, he started 17th in the second featch and blew by David Hesmer with two to go to bring the crowd to its feet.
4.  8/14 – Wayne Johnson almost wins one for the locals in the Thursday night qualifier for the Nationals.  After starting on the pole he broke out in commanding fashion, with Tim Shaffer and Steve Kinser in chase.  Despite four cautions and an open red, Johnson still held the advantage and at one point diced twice with “the King” and passed him back.  A lap 22 caution would be his downfall, as Kinser passed him at the cone and it was all over.  Despite finishing third, Johnson was all smiles, and Knoxville was proud.
5.  5/3 – Skip Jackson and Blake Feese exchange sliders late before Skip uses his experience to claim the 410 win.
Others worth mentioning:  8/10 – McCarl locks down the ToC, with several competitors surging through the pack…. 8/2 – Alley executes a last lap pass of Higday for the checkers in 360 action…. 7/19 – Jason York outduels Higday for his first career 360 win at Knoxville…. 6/28 – McCarl passes 11 to win.  In addition, Skip Jackson passes 16, Ricky Logan passes nine, Don Droud Jr. passes 17 in the McCarl 7x, Brent Antill passes nine, and Chris Walraven gets by 10…. 6/14 – Dennis Moore Jr. explodes with five to go to capture his 2nd 360 Nationals.  Positions two through seven are exchanged like Christmas gifts.  Gary Wright passes 29 cars in a charge from the C to the A.
410 Awards  
Driver of the Year – Terry McCarl continues to amaze in his fifth straight Knoxville title.
Rookies of the Year – Wayne Johnson was technically a rookie in the 410 class at Knoxville, but brought quite a bit of experience in finishing sixth in points.  Brian Brown was a pure 410 rookie, and does not get enough credit for what he has accomplished.  A feature win and seventh in the points race deserves national honors.
Eric Vanderploeg was also impressive.  This was his first full year in a sprint car period.  He ended up 20th in points, despite missing the last week and not being on full power on several nights.
Most Improved – Derek Beckman’s driving career may be over, but his improvement this year was evident.  Despite missing the last night, he improved his points positioning five spots from 2002.  Hopefully, someday he’ll return, but Huset’s was scary.
Mike Moore is getting better.  The more seat time he has gained, the less the crowd has to worry about his hospital visits, which was the case in his first year.  Driving at Cameron, MO on Friday nights, and traveling a bit more has really benefited Moore.  Look for his improvement to continue.
Hard Luck – Calvin Landis hands down.  After winning at Osky in April, things looked up.  An early July incident with Joey Saldana and sickness sent one of the nicest guys downhill for the rest of the season.  Look for him to bounce back.
360 Awards  
Driver of the Year – It took awhile for Billy Alley to get his feet at the half-mile, but it didn’t take long.  His achievements were amazing and grabbed the crowds attention on most evenings.  Giannetto led all season until the final night.  Rumors are saying the D1 will move on to the 410 class next year.  What about Alley?
Rookies of the Year – Alley is obvious.  On a limited schedule, John VanDenBerg scored a top ten in the points race in his first season utilizing a 360 power plant.  Ryan York grabbed his first career Knoxville win, as well as establishing himself as a top runner despite missing a few nights.
Most Improved – Ed Ergenbright scored a top five finish after a dismal 20th in the points in 2002.  The Ergenbright mount will be missed at Knoxville.  Eric Mason looked outstanding on a number of nights and had some top five finishes.  He moved from 25th to 15th in the points.  Michael Jones battled through some mechanical ills to lead a couple of features and score some solid finishes.
Hard Luck – Doug Wilson has proven he can drive a 410 and deserves that chance.  This year was a disaster for the family as every conceivable thing that can go wrong with a sprint car, did for this team.  It started with an accident that couldn’t be avoided on opening night and went downhill from there, with numerous things happening to the car.  After finishing fifth in 2002, Wilson managed only 16th this year.
As always, fire away with your comments or insults.  Next month we’ll tackle the best looking cars in 2003.